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The 3-2-1: What’s next for the ACC with Swofford set to retire?

In the wake of John Swofford’s decision to retire in 2021 after serving as ACC Commissioner for 24 years, it’s time to take a closer look at what that means for Florida State and the entire conference.

The questions are seemingly endless. What is Swofford’s legacy with the Atlantic Coast Conference? What direction will the league go in for new leadership? Can a new commissioner close the ACC’s revenue gap with other conferences?

To tackle those topics and more, Warchant managing editor Ira Schoffel is offering his latest 3-2-1 column: Three observations, two questions and a prediction.

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1 — Disappointing financial results in final years will taint Swofford’s legacy

Tobacco Road was filled with compliments and congratulations on Friday when John Swofford announced this would be his final year with the ACC.

N.C. State’s chancellor praised Swofford for his, “steady hand and thoughtful leadership.” Clemson’s president called him, “a true gentleman, with unparalleled character and integrity.” Wake Forest’s president said, “He has been a savvy, principled, and foresighted leader in tumultuous times.”

I wouldn’t quibble with any of those descriptions. Having covered the ACC for most of Swofford’s tenure, I would definitely describe the longtime commissioner as a good man, a classy individual and an extremely intelligent administrator.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with leaders in business and other high-profile endeavors, Swofford will be most remembered for what transpired in his final years at the helm — and that will do him no favors. It was under his watch that the economic model for collegiate sports shifted dramatically, and the ACC was seemingly ill-prepared for those new realities.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past — just over a decade ago — when the ACC’s annual television revenue payout was comparable to that of the other major college conferences. In some cases, it actually was better.

But when the Big Ten launched its super-successful cable network and the SEC followed suit in 2014, the ACC was left at the starting line. After a lengthy planning and negotiating process, it wasn’t until the summer of 2019 that Swofford and ESPN were able to get the ACC Network off the ground. By that point, the damage was done.

In the most recent financial returns for Fiscal Year 2019, FSU and other ACC schools received about $30 million apiece from the conference, while SEC schools each received almost $45 million, and Big Ten universities got $51 million. Even schools in the Pac-12 ($31.3 million) and Big 12 ($38.8 million) received bigger payouts for that year.

And what’s worse, The Athletic recently projected that the revenue gap is going to expand in the next decade, with ACC schools eventually receiving $30-$40 million less per year than their counterparts in the SEC and Big Ten.

Those are jarring projections.

While those conference payouts only represent a portion of a university’s annual athletics budget, the gap is expanding so wide and so quickly that unless something changes, it’s going to put FSU, Clemson, Miami and any other league member who wants to compete with the big boys in football at a substantial disadvantage.

Swofford did some very good things during his tenure, but few of those are going to be remembered down the road because it was during his watch that the ACC got lapped financially by other conferences. Whether it was directly his fault or not.

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